Cinema of Italy: White telephones

The season of the white telephones lasted only for a brief period of time during the 1930s and early 1940s.

A classic example of White Telephone films is “Gli uomini, che mascalzoni” (1932) with Vittorio De Sica and directed by Vittorio Camerini.
The name came from the presence of white telephones seen in some scenes of movies produced during this time, a symptom of social well-being: a status symbol to differentiate from the black telephones, a more popular color.
Contemporary film critics prefer to call these movies in the style of the Hungarian Comedy, because, although the movies were produced in Italy, almost all of them used themes and settings from Hungarian authors and therefore taking place in Hungary, also for censorship reasons (the preferred subject of these comedies, was a threat of adultery or divorce, unthinkable in Italy during those years): the city of Bucharest is often named, or another definition to this genre is Cinema Deco for the overwhelming presence of décor that recalls the international style of Art Deco, very popular in this period.

White telephone films offer fascinating images of sexual politics, fantasies about men and women, marriage, and broader social relationships. The stories are not self-conscious about social class roles, but they do portray class conflict, are aware of class difference, and many times take a satiric attitude toward the upper class. While some, such as Bruno Torri, refer to white telephone films as “escapist films which uphold the ethic of the family and religion, concealing exploitation and class struggle”, others, such as Casadio called white telephone films “indirect propaganda” for what they fail to show: working-class life, social conflict, reality, and sex.

These stories would seem to deserve the condemnation upon them of being frivolous or inconsequential, but at a closer look, these seemingly trivial characters and situations are an indicator to familiar conventional myths and attitudes. Dominant conflicts in these narratives are incompatibility, sexual identity, and submission to conformity.


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